Any individual, at some point of time in his life, would be asking himself what brought him into this world of sufferings and what should he do to liberate himself from it. According to scriptures, every birth an individual takes is the result of his past Karma. Karma is not to be confused with fate. It is the natural law of cause and effect. The word ‘Karma’ simply means action. Any action has a natural reaction. If one has done a positive action, he gets a positive reaction and if he has done a negative action, it invites a negative reaction. In fact, he himself decides by his action the quality of his next life. “As you sow, so you reap”. So goes the saying.
An individual may die before the consequence of his action starts working on him, but death does not exonerates him. The Karma or the consequence of his action remains with him in latent form and follows him even in his next birth. This is the reason we find many diversities among human beings. While one undergoes sufferings, the other passes through pleasant times. Though hereditary factors do exercise their influence, it is the Karma effect that determines the course of one’s life.
When every act invites a consequence and brings him back to life, what the individual aspiring to liberate himself from this world should do. How can he free himself from the repeated cycle of death and life? He cannot abstain from action altogether. Having come into this world, he is bound to act. He may take certain actions which are necessary for his own welfare and the welfare of his family. How can he act and yet free himself from the bondage of Karma? It is this question, Lord Krishna answers in Bhagawad Gita. “You are required to perform the duties expected of you in the given circumstances but do not associate yourself with your deeds. Let the body, mind and intellect do the functions while you remain detached from it. It is only when you identify yourself with your action and think you are the doer, you unconsciously invite the consequence.”
It is only when we perform a function with eyes fixed on the fruit or when an action is performed with ego at the centre, it becomes Karma. If we perform a function without any self-interest but as duties expected of us, we become free from Karma. A true devotee should think in the following lines: “Let me surrender unto Krishna and leave the question of security to him. When I do my duty without relation to its result (Nishkama Karma), I cease to be the doer, the actor or the enjoyer. When I perform an action as an act of service to God, my individuality ceases to exist and I become free from Karma.” Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi advised us to enquire “who does the action”. When a person subjects himself to scrutiny and self enquiry, he realizes that he is the Self (Atman), beyond the domain of the body or mind and beyond the realm of action or inaction. The Self being a mere witness and observer, he remains unattached to the action and unaffected by the consequence of it. When he does his duties without the notion of “I am doing it”, he becomes a true Karma Yogi and gets liberated from the cycle of birth and death.
He who does the action without the sense of doer-ship (Dehatma Budhi) and dedicates his action to God becomes free from the three-fold Karmas (Sanchita, Agami and Prarabdha). Sanchita Karma is the action which the individual has already done, the consequence of which is lying in store and not started bearing fruit. Prarabda Karma is the action done by the individual which has already started bearing fruit. Even if he has acquired Jnana and is on the right path of realization, he is bound by the consequences of Prarabda Karma. Prarabda Karma may be compared to a fast running fan which even after being switched off keeps moving for sometime.
If one is bound by the consequences of his past actions, does it mean that the fate of the individual is sealed in advance and he has to suffer it silently? If everything should happen as destined according to Karma, where is the scope for initiative, action or progress? Should one remain idle by letting the fate to decide things or should he exercise his free will and act? Generally, the theory of free will is used to encourage and motivate people to act and the theory of destiny is used to console those suffering. As a matter of fact, concepts of destiny and free-will arise only in the chamber of the mind. As Maharshi said, free will exists together with the individuality. So long the individuality lasts, there is free will. The concept of Karma or free will is entertained only by one who remains in the notion “I am the body”. For one who has transcended the body identification, the karma effect makes no difference.
Bhagavan says: “He who transcends the idea of ‘I am the body’ (Dehatma Buddhi) becomes free from Karma and attains Mukti. When the concept of ‘I am the body’ is gone, there is neither action nor actor (Kartritva or Karta). From the perspective of Jnani, there is neither destiny nor free will but only the Consciousness of Self.
It is the ego, born out of body identification that decides acts and faces the consequences. Once the mind, the source of ego, is traced and taken to heart, there is neither the destiny nor the free will. For one who abides by self, there is no sense of doer-ship and no Karma. He merely performs the role assigned to him, just as in a movie, without identifying himself with that role. He, who has realized his identity with the deathless Self, merely acts his part on the human stage without fear or anxiety.